Fernando Vargas never quite lived up to his hype. But to be fair, it was a lot of hype.
Vargas turned pro in 1997 at age 19, having been involved in boxing since the age of 10. His story is not unique in the fight game, but lays the groundwork for his career. A Mexican-American from Oxnard, CA, Vargas grew up without his birth father. Even among professional fighters, Vargas was long known as someone who had a lot of anger inside of him. Boxing, as it turned out, saved Vargas from a hopeless path.
With his fifth pro loss, this one to Ricardo Mayorga, coming on Saturday, Vargas promises that it was his last. After years of hard-hitting encounters with top stars -- most of which he lost -- Vargas has earned an early retirement. And coming from where Vargas came from, it's great to hear the following words from this 29-year old, now-retired star:
"I don't care if they offer me $100 million. I don't need money. I'm 29 years of age. I've done very well for myself, and I'll never have to work again. I'm tired of this. I've been doing this since I was 10."
"El Feroz," in my view, goes out as one of his generation's best losers. Finishing with a career record of 26-5, it's unfair to call Vargas a "loser," and I don't mean it in a bad way. He beat some good fighters -- Ike Quartey, Raul Marquez, Yory Boy Campas, and a controversial decision against Winky Wright.
But the highlights of Vargas' career, the moments that will truly live on, were in defeat. His intense rivalry with Oscar de la Hoya ended in Vargas being stopped in dramatic fashion. His first fight with Shane Mosley saw Vargas' eye swelled to grotesque proportions, though he actually rallied to make it a hell of a fight. In their rematch, Mosley dropped him, viciously, in the sixth.
Tito Trinidad put him down for his first loss in 2001, and Ricardo Mayorga outpointed him for his third consecutive -- and last.
But Vargas, as much as I usually disliked him, was a warrior. He was a trash-talker, and many times it came back to him in the ring. But he pressed forward whenever he could, fighting for the fight and bringing his intense style to every fight. Even when he lost, it was exciting.
And Vargas, simply put, was exciting.
So, no, he doesn't go out the legend that Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera did. He's more in line with Arturo Gatti, though not as beloved. But he was a hell of a fighter at his best, and he went out on his shield. Ask the young Fernando Vargas how he'd want to retire, and I doubt he'd object to the way it happened. He fought his best, and lost. He leaves with pride, and should hold his head up high.
2007 has seen us bid farewell to so many notable boxers, and Vargas, in many respects, belongs in their company.
I'll leave you with my favorite memory of Vargas. Yes, it was a loss, but watch how he bounces up from what Jim Lampley describes as a "rocket left hook" from de la Hoya. Oscar would put his rival away shortly thereafter, but Vargas fought the 11th round as he did most rounds in his career -- like he was trying to knock somebody out. He was in danger coming in, and left defeated. But Vargas did it in typical "El Feroz" fashion. Fighting.